Science in Society Archive

UN Cautions Over GM trees

Why there must be a moratorium on commercialisation of GM trees. Sam Burcher

GM trees untraceable

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has called for an international framework to assess the safety of genetically modified (GM) trees [1].

The increasing use of biotechnology in the forestry sector has led to the spread of GM tree planting in at least thirty-five countries.  According to the FAO, most research is confined to the laboratories, but many millions of GM trees have already been released in open field trials in China, North America, Australia, Europe, and India, and to a lesser extent, South America and Africa [2].

Pierre Sigaud, FAO expert in forest genetics, warns against rushing into GM tree commercialisation before conducting environmental risk assessments according to national and international protocols.  He says, "The issue goes beyond country level since pollen flow and seed dispersal do not take account of national boundaries and wood is a global commodity."  To counteract cross-contamination from GM trees to native stands, a robust framework to govern research and application is essential. 

Concerns about contamination from GM pollen and seed drift is shared by many forestry experts and sustainability groups such as the Peoples Biosafety Organisation, the Union of Ecoforesty, the Sustainable World Initiative and the Independent Science Panel (see "Save our Forests" series SIS 26). Delegates from these organisations lobbied hard for a moratorium on GM trees at the UN Forest Forum in New York and the Meetings of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (COP/MOP-2) in Montreal earlier this year, and at the UN Forest Forum in 2004 ("GM trees lost in China’s forests" SiS 25 [3]).

Too little, too late?

The FAO interventions may be too little, too late.  In 2002, China became the first country to release GM trees commercially. The Chinese State Forestry Bureau is unable to trace the 1.4 million GM poplars (Populus nigra) planted so far. Nine smaller field trials are underway with Poplar –12 and Poplar –741, engineered to be infertile and pest resistant.

Plans to increase GM tree plantations in China are being considered [4].  According to the Chinese Academy of Forestry, environmental risks from the spread of seeds and shoots from GM trees are unlikely.  If this does happen shoots from sprouting poplars would be eaten by passing cattle and sheep or destroyed by farming.  This "solution" implies that transgenic poplars are planted in populated areas, not out of the way in parched and remote regions of northern China as a safety measure against contamination, as stated.

The US Department of Energy were first to sequence the whole genome of the poplar tree. Three other GM tree species dominate forestry biotechnology research: pine, eucalyptus, and spruce (picea).  These too have been widely planted in open trials. Applications to field test GM trees in the US have risen by over 70 percent in fifteen years.

Nano-GM trees next

The Institute of Paper Science and Technology collaborated with the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge laboratory in their latest genetic engineering project that uses carbon nanofibres to inject synthetic DNA into plant cells. Carbon nanofibres and nanotubes are molecular scale particles; one nanometre is a billionth of a metre; and one grain of sand is a million nanometres across [5].

This technique involves millions of carbon nanofibres grown sticking out from silicon chips, on which strands of DNA are attached. Living cells are then thrown against them and pierced by the fibres, injecting DNA into the cells [6].  Following this process, the synthetic DNA can then express new proteins and traits.

There has been a rush to commercialise carbon nanotubes since their invention in 1991, but very few safety assessments have been carried out until quite recently, when they were found in laboratory experiments to be highly toxic, producing inflammation of the lungs of mice ("Nanotubes highly toxic", SiS 22) [7].  A Royal Society report in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Engineers stated in July 2004 [8] that there are uncertainties about the potential effects on human health and the environment from manufactured ultrafine nano-particles if they are released.  A EU Nanoforum report likens the shapes of nanofibres to asbestos fibres and by implication to the morbid effects of asbestos on human health [9].

A NASA study reported inflammation of lungs to be more severe than in cases of silicosis, a respiratory disease caused by breathing in silica dust [10]. A European Commission report chronicles the hazards of nanotechnology in detail assisted by ISP toxicologist Dr Vyvyan Howard [11] (see also "Nanotox", SiS 21 [12]). Mapping out Nano Risks, explicitly recommends that genetic modification using nano-technology should be limited to micro-organisms, "for which containment is possible."  Nano-GM of larger organisms such as plants and animals, which cannot be contained, must be avoided.

Dr Richard Smalley, a Nobel laureate and chairman of Carbon Nanotechnology Inc, has ignored these early warnings and is adamant that his technique poses no threat to health.  He said, "We are confident there will prove out no heath hazards, but this toxicology work continues."[4].

Micropropagation produces clones

Researchers in India use "micropropagation" to clone plants from tiny pieces of tissues.  Micropropagation is a method of in vitro vegetative multiplication that bypasses sexual reproduction and allows selected individuals to be precisely replicated in vast numbers [1].  The production of millions of identical genetically engineered plants constitutes the largest area, 34 percent, of experimental biotechnology activities in forestry throughout sixty-four countries.

The ultimate goal of this research is to produce patented manufactured seeds from clones of "model species" that will enable the quick and easy global delivery of GM tree products [2].

Negative impact of monoculture plantations

What environmental impact has replacing diverse native forests with monoculture plantations had? In Brazil, ecosystems and traditional ways of life are threatened by water guzzling tree plantations that pollute and destroy clean water, habitats, medicinal plants and sacred realms that intrinsically link all living systems ("GM trees the ultimate threat", SiS26 [13])  (see box).

A Brazilian government project to sequence the entire genome of the eucalyptus tree is financed by companies that topped a poll representing the worst carbon sink project at the COP9 conference in Milan in 2003 [3].  The FAO however, misguidedly describes the "Genolyptus" project in Brazil as "cutting edge biotechnological research." 

The Brazilian Network Against the Green Desert and their partner the Latin American Network Against Monoculture Tree Plantations have designated every 21 September as National Tree Day since 2004, in support of rural communities that have been displaced, destroyed or exploited by monoculture plantations.

In Chile, around one hundred indigenous Mapuche Indians face trial and prison because of actions against forestry company plantations [14].

No future for GM trees

The FAO surveyed 65 countries involved in forest biotechtology, and their responses gave undue emphasis to the perceived benefits and future of GM trees [2]. Of over four hundred questionnaires sent out, forty-nine responded, of which twenty three had conducted research on GM trees.  Respondents felt that the cost of GM trials, intellectual property rights, and regulations were significant obstacles to the future of GM trees. Consumer rejection and unease with GM products were also cited as problems.

Benefits of GM trees were perceived as easier pulping methods and reduced use of chemicals for the timber industry, pest and disease resistance, phyto-remediation of mercury in soil, secondary compounds to pharmaceuticals, and potential to withstand extreme environmental conditions such as drought and heat. All of these perceived benefits are not without problems and require many years of careful biological and environmental assessment before commercialisation could be justified (see box). Benefits to human health scored lowest of all.

 The final consensus was that forestry biotechnology excluding genetic modification is far less costly and requires much less regulation than traditional means of tree improvement.  The FAO’s proposed framework to assess the safety of GM trees therefore must acknowledge the megadiversity of existing forests and the increasing trend towards recognizing the benefits of multiple uses of forests that preserves that diversity ("Multiple uses of forests", SiS 25 [15]).

The FAO should support the global moratorium on further releases of GM trees that has been already launched by a coalition of civil society organisations (, and also ban the creation of GM trees by means of carbon nanotubes or other nanoparticles.

Why not GM trees?

  • Break with the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety – the first international law to control transportation of Living Modified Organisms (LMO’s) across national boundaries
  • Disrupt ecosystems and pose similar environmental, health and economic risks as GM crops, but on a larger scale
  • Replace and threaten natural biodiverse forests that are crucial to stabilising climate and regulating rainfall
  • Produce faster growing trees that speed up the return of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and use up much more water
  • When used to phyto-remediate land actually re-locate soil mercury from contaminated sites in the south and deposit them in the north. And return expelled mercury to the soil in its original toxic state
  • Manipulate synthetic genes and toxins to alter seed and flowering production posing threats to human and animal health, as well as natural biodiversity
  • Increase productivity for timber and pulp in monoculture plantations that destroy natural habitats and rural communities which depend on native forests for food and a multiplicity of other uses
  • Less fibrous content of trees (lignin) reduces strength, resistance to pests, and disease. Increased lignin leads to a build-up of undigested plant material in the soil.

Sources: Save our Forests series, Science in Society 2005, issue 26 p 14-24

Article first published 12/10/05


  1. James Njoroge. UN body urges caution over GM trees, July 22, 2005.
  2. Forest genetic resources working papers.  Preliminary review of biotechnology in forestry, use of genetic modification, FGR/59E, December 2004
  3. Burcher S.  GM trees lost in China’s forests Science in Society, 2005, issue 26, p23-24.
  4. More GE trees "no threat" to environment. China Daily 1 April 2005.
  5. GM plants use nanofibres. August 15 2005
  6. Dangers come in small particles. Hazards Magazine July-Sept 2004, issue 87.
  7. Ho MW. Nanotubes highly toxic. Science in Society 2004, 21, 37-37.
  8. The Royal Society report 29 July 2004
  9. Benefits, risks, ethical, legal and social aspects of nanotechnology, June 2004.
  10. Lam C. W. Pulmonary toxicity of single walled nanotubes in mice, Toxilogical Science 2004, 77, 126-134.
  11. European Commission, Nanotechnologies: A preliminary risk analysis on the basis of a workshop organised in Brussels on 1-2 March 2004 by the Health and Consumer Protection Directorate General of the European Commission,
  12. Howard V. Nanotox. Science in Society 2004, 21, 34-35. http://www.i-sis.or
  13. Ho MW. Cummins J. GM forest trees, the ultimate threat.  Science in Society, 2005, issue 26, p14-16.
  14. Brazil – A categorical demonstration against the green desert and in favour of life.
  15. Ho MW. Multiple uses of forests. Science in Society, 2005 issue 26, p18-19.

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